This holiday season, do a little experiment. When you’re gathered around with all your loved ones, ask what it is about the holidays that means the most to them. I’m willing to bet their answer will include special times spent with the family or a heartwarming story they remember from their childhood—and not much will be said about all the gifts they’ve gotten in the past. I’m not implying that we all should completely abandon giving presents, but going green and giving eco-friendly gifts help give the tradition a little more meaning.
I search for presents that meet three criteria. They’re meaningful to the recipient. They do some good for someone or some cause. And they minimize their environmental impact.
This last concern might not be top of mind for most shoppers, but it should be. Waste in the U.S. increases 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, with 28 billion pounds of food alone being wasted in just those five weeks. Half the paper consumed in America is used solely during the holiday season. Thirty-three million Christmas trees are sold in North America every year, most of which will be tossed come January 1.
It’s stats like these that have inspired me to break the mold—both by buying less and by using my shopping dollars to support businesses and entrepreneurs who are trying to do well and do good at the same time.
Make It Personal and Experiential
I’m a huge fan of framed family photos, meaningful memorabilia, and homemade books that commemorate an anniversary, a special achievement, or a wonderful vacation. I’ll take theater or concert tickets over a new sweater any time. A couple of cooking lessons so I can finally learn how to make a proper saag paneer? Something wild and crazy like a day trip in a hot air balloon? Yes and yes, please!
Think DIY for Sustainable Gifts
I’m not very crafty, but I can weave potholders, so I’m making some for friends and family this year. I love their retro vibe. (Note: Get the 10” loom.) I do better in the kitchen, baking delightful gingerbread cakes for my favorite neighborhood kids using this mold, and whipping up jars of sand art brownies for all the chocolate lovers on my list.
One of my neighbors burns a new holiday CD for the hostess gift he brings to my party. Another delivers homemade jam she boiled up last summer after she picked flats full of locally grown strawberries. The people right next door drop by with a small jar of the precious—and delicious—honey they produce from their own hives.
Here’s one of my all-time faves: When my daughter was a college student, she went to a local paint-your-own-pottery shop, bought a big mug and adorned it with a slogan she knew I’d love: “Make Tea, Not War.” She really nailed it.
Ethical Gift Ideas: Go BOGO — Buy One Give One
Like the idea of “two-fers”? When you buy a gift from a BOGO company, they’ll donate the equivalent in value to someone in need, usually a child. I’ve pulled together a Buy One Give One Holiday Gift Guide over at my Big Green Purse blog if you need some BOGO gift ideas, such as WeWood (a company that plants a tree for every watch it sells) or Diff Charitable Eyewear (which donates reading glasses to someone in need for every pair of sunglasses sold).
Be Energy Aware
If I am going to buy electronics or an appliance, like a flat screen tv, I take the item’s climate change impact into account. The EPA’s Energy Star program has put together this helpful Holiday Gift Guide to make it easy to choose the most energy saving option available.
Remember Those in Need
Years ago, we started using Thanksgiving to get our kids focused on charitable giving. We’d each say what we were thankful for, then discuss what donations to make as a family. Now I consult GreatNonProfits.org for ideas. Last year, my family’s focus was on groups that are helping hurricane victims in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where we have spent many memorable vacations. But I’ve also been touched by DigDeep.org, an admirable non-profit that is raising money to provide running water and solar power for American homes that, amazingly, have neither plumbing nor electricity.
When I do shop, I favor entrepreneurs who are trying to do well and do good at the same time.
This group includes the vendors at the local farmer’s market. I happily fill up gift bags with their artisanal cheeses, dried herbs, hand-made soaps, and organic produce.
Farther afield, Berkshire Sweet Gold, produces to-die-for artisanal maple syrup from 5,000 maple trees planted in Massachusetts’s Berkshire Mountains. The owners, who are conservation scientists, use the profits à la Newman’s Own to support IslandReach.org, the non-profit they started to protect islands in the southwest Pacific from climate change.
Grounds for Change is a certified organic coffee roaster specializing in 100% Fair Trade coffee. The company makes sure its growers are paid a fair wage while reducing the amount of pesticides and herbicides used.
Beauty Counter sells safer skin care, makeup, and bath and body products online only with a “never list” that includes toxic chemicals found more abundantly in other cosmetics. What makes the company even more beautiful is that it’s encouraging a new wave of women to become internet-based entrepreneurs. Shop with them or give a friend the gift of an enrollment kit that helps them become a company consultant.
How to Wrap It Up and Stay Environmentally Friendly
When it comes to wrapping, I tend towards time-saving, reusable shopping bags and gift boxes, rather than throwaway paper, even if it’s recycled paper. And yes, I do carefully unwrap presents and reuse paper the next year when possible. These cloth bags from Living Ethos are lovely, too.
As for deliveries, my number one eco-tip is avoid last minute online ordering, which requires your present to be put on an airplane and flown across the country. Talk about a big carbon footprint.
It might be a cliché, but I love the holidays: not for what I get, but for what I have the chance to give—and for the way my gift giving allows me to express my values.
Diane MacEachern is an award-winning entrepreneur and prominent green expert who founded Big Green Purse to inspire women to use their consumer clout to protect the planet and themselves.
A version of this article was originally published in December 2017.